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story.lead_photo.caption In a fun way to learn their numbers and to work on coordination skills, Samara Nyathanga, 5, plays hopscotch in her preschool classroom at Jefferson City's Southwest Early Childhood Center. At left is teacher, Jennifer Penserum, who works closely with the Title 1 students to help them improve their reading skills and numeral recognition skills. Photo by Julie Smith

The Jefferson City Public Schools' preschool program will expand to serve new parts of the community next year — regardless of whether additional funding comes from the state.

The Missouri Senate recently put the final seal of approval on an operating budget for the 2018 fiscal year that would trigger new funding for districts generated by their preschool programs. The trigger comes from full funding of the state's education foundation formula.

Gov. Eric Greitens still has to approve the budget sent to his desk. Even if full funding of education survives his veto power and the early childhood education income generation kicks in, that doesn't mean all approved money will be disbursed.

Either way, that won't stop 74 new preschool seats from opening up in the JCPS district — or more parents from having more program options.

Southwest Early Childhood Center Principal Nicole Langston said there will be space in the preschool program for 45 new students next year, with space for another 15 new preschool students at Callaway Hills Elementary School and an additional 14 new students in the district's early childhood special education program.

Langston said the special education program is for students "having trouble with their language or their speech."

The 45 new students at Southwest Early Childhood Center will bring the number of students there to 150. With the addition of the 15 students at Callaway Hills, the district will have 165 children in its Title I-funded preschool program.

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Title I refers to federal standards that fund school services for students in low-income families. Langston said their preschool program previously could accept only Title I children, but next year, they're "not going to only take kids that are living in poverty." She added other children can have academic and behavioral needs, too.

The consensus among top researchers is all children who attend public preschool programs are better prepared for kindergarten than those who don't, and poor or disadvantaged children in particular benefit most, according to reporting by NPR.

Langston said Title I-eligible children will still get priority in JCPS's new student screening process.

"People call us all throughout the year," she said of the volume of parents and guardians who inquire about preschool for about 700 age-eligible children every year. Many have to be turned away because of the high demand, she added.

"This is why we started to get creative with the half-day options," she said of a new program option for next year. In addition to the new seats, the preschool program will offer the option of half-day programs; right now, it only offers a full-day option. More programs mean more children can be served throughout the day.

"We're really excited to be able to roll this new way of serving our community out," Langston said.

If the governor approves full funding of the state education formula, in the 2018-19 school year, preschool students who receive free and reduced-price lunch could be counted in the enrollment-based calculations for state funding for districts — something that can't be done now.

JCPS Chief Financial and Chief Operating Officer Jason Hoffman said this mechanism would generate $750,000 each year for the district, on top of the $650,000 in new income that full funding of the state aid formula would provide.

Both amounts are not earmarked, meaning they could be used for a variety of needs within the district.

However, Hoffman explained one preschool classroom costs $100,000 — equivalent to the combined salaries of a teacher and a paraprofessional aide, who together can supervise 15 preschool students.

If all of the $750,000 of possible new preschool-based state funding were to be directed back into the preschool program, that could mean at least seven new preschool classrooms could be opened, providing capacity for 105 new students.

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Hoffman explained the number of free and reduced-price lunch-eligible preschool students who could be counted in enrollment-based calculations for state funding is capped at the equivalent of 4 percent of the K-12 free and reduced-price lunch count. The 4 percent limit for JCPS would be 202 students, meaning any number of subsidized meal-eligible students in the preschool program beyond this number would not secure any additional state funding.

The number of students in a school or district who receive free or reduced-price lunch is a standard indicator of the level of poverty in that school or district. Hoffman said all of JCPS's current 105 preschool students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Federal Title I funding currently supports six of the district's seven preschool classrooms, a total of 90 seats. The seventh classroom with the remaining 15 students is funded by a partnership between Scholastic, the JCPS Foundation and the district itself.

The new preschool room at Callaway Hills will be funded by 1 cent of the 45-cent operating levy local voters approved in April. Twenty-five cents of the operating levy are earmarked for the operating costs of a second high school, and the other 19 cents are for other current academic and behavioral and mental health needs within the district.

NPR reports the federal government, 42 states and the District of Columbia together spend about $37 billion a year on early childhood education programs, mostly targeted at 3- to 5-year-olds from low-income families.

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